A Good American: a personal take on mass surveillance

Director Friedrich Moser draws some conclusions on mass surveillance from his groundbreaking documentary on the work of NSA whistleblower, Bill Binney

The focus of our intelligence agencies to gather as much data as possible is completely wrong and has had lethal consequences, from 9/11 to 7/7 to Paris, Brussels and Nice.

You don’t need all the data about everybody in the world to discover and react to threats. If you do try to gather such vast volumes of data, you flood your analysts, decision makers and police with garbage. They need the right data and they need it in time.

The only way to get there is by upfront filtering for targets, which can be done through metadata – information about the sender, recipient and receiver of an email or phone call.

That, in turn, has a nice side-effect: it gives privacy to over 99% of people who are not known targets or demonstrating behaviour that would make them suspicious – upfront, without even taking their metadata in.

The metadata of those who are suspects can be anonymised as it is taken in, giving them privacy until there is probable cause and an official investigation starts. So, less collection means more privacy and greater security.

This is exactly what Bill Binney and his team had developed and what had made their program ThinThread so efficient – it was used targeting weapons of mass destruction in Asia for more than two years.

But there is another side-effect: it also costs less. Far less. Just a fraction. Actually, it is a thousand times cheaper than mass surveillance. And this is why it was killed.

Follow the money

Mass surveillance is not about security. It is about money. The National Security Agency (NSA), GCHQ and the German BND, as well as others, all knew about ThinThread – even if today they pretend they didn’t.

The NSA managed to bury an official report of the Pentagon into ThinThread in secrecy, through classification by the US Department of Justice. What got classified? Almost everything marked “unclassified”, documenting fraud, waste and abuse by the NSA management under former director general Michael Hayden.

Bill Binney and his team developed the ThinThread program, which enabled automated, targeted upstream acquisition of security data from fibre optic lines

“9/11 is a gift to NSA. Now we can get all the money we need and then some,” the ex-number three at the NSA, Maureen Baginski, has been quoted as saying.

The truth is that this also applies to most other intelligence agencies in the western world. Nobody ever got fired after one of the big terrorist attacks (which were clearly intelligence failures). The only consequence was budget increases to do more of the same (which had just clearly failed). What other job allows you to fail and get a bonus for failing? In national security, this looks like a business model.

Knowledge is power

Modern mass surveillance was not born out of a shock reaction to 9/11. It was born out of a shock reaction to the collapse of communism through a popular up-rising that nobody had seen coming. Could the same happen to capitalism? Wouldn’t it be good to see the signs as early as possible?

Not surprisingly, the first targets of mass surveillance in the US were political activists, especially those organising protests against the Iraq war, which had long been prepared by Dick Cheney and his fellows at the Project for a New American Century and which was a huge business opportunity for the military-industrial complex.

Other targets were the Tea Party, Occupy and most recently Black Lives Matter and environmental activists – in the UK even MP Caroline Lucas from the Greens found out that she was targeted, because of her opposition to fracking.

In the run-up to the Investigatory Powers Bill, government “experts” stated that it was technically impossible to sort out phone numbers or IP addresses of Parliamentarians upfront, and therefore it was impossible to guarantee their communication would not be caught up in the data dragnet.


ThinThread did exactly that as early as 1998. Commercial products like Narus used by NSA and various other countries have been doing it since 2002.

Mass surveillance has led to a complete power over-reach of the executive branch over all other branches of government. “Knowledge is power” has never been more true.

To me, making A Good American was an eye-opener. Not only is mass surveillance knowingly aiding terrorists in reaching their goals by making it impossible for analysts to find the threats – and I think we should actually prosecute the proponents of mass surveillance for that with the full force of the law – it is also an invitation for all sorts of abuse.

A Good American is more than just a film. It is a call to action. We need to stop this mass surveillance nonsense. Right now.

Friedrich Moser is the director of A Good American, a documentary feature about the life and career of Bill Binney, NSA code-breaker genius turned whistleblower, and his surveillance programme ThinThread, which was shut down by NSA management three weeks prior to 9/11. A test-run after the attacks showed ThinThread would have prevented them.

A Pentagon report into the matter has remained classified to this day. The NSA’s partner agencies in the UK, Germany, Scandinavia, Canada, Australia and New Zealand also were kept involved in the development of ThinThread. A Good American had its UK premiere on 15 September and its theatrical release in select cinemas from 23 September.

Read more about mass surveillance

Read more on Privacy and data protection